Poison control experts say they field more calls about bleach exposure than any other chemical. The dangers are compounded when combined with some other chemicals. However, bleach alone is generally safe at standard household concentrations, even if it causes some worrisome symptoms.
Alternative anti-bacterial cleaners are available, though they may be less effective than bleach, and the alternatives also pose problems.
Amy Hanoian-Fontana is the community education specialist at the Connecticut Poison Control Center, part of the University of Connecticut Health Center. She said her office fields many calls about bleach exposure leading to irritation and burning in the eyes, mouth, lungs and skin.
“Most poison center calls involve exposures to household bleach,” she said. “The symptoms are mild to moderate, resolve after thorough flushing with water, and leave no long-term effects.”
She said most home bleach products are dilute, with less than 5 percent hypochlorite, the active (and potentially dangerous) ingredient in bleach. Moreover, most people dilute their bottled bleach in water for home cleaning.
Industrial-strength cleaners, swimming pool chemicals and other products often have higher concentrations of hypochlorite. Still, she said they are not dangerous if users follow all directions and heed all warnings.
“These are stronger and merit more caution, but can still be used safely,” she said.
More serious concerns
Even at low household concentrations, people with asthma, and other breathing problems may experience more serious symptoms after bleach exposure, according to Hanoian-Fontana.
Also, bleach should never be mixed with ammonia or other acids because the compound could produce toxic chlorine gas. This even applies to seemingly harmless and natural acidic cleaners, such as vinegar.
“Symptoms may include feeling an immediate burning sensation in the nose, eyes, or mouth, and coughing, dizziness, or shortness of breath,” said Hanoian-Fontana.
Again, there is typically a simple and effective solution.
“Get to fresh air right away. This will relieve symptoms,” Hanoian-Fontana said.
She added that the problem is not just mixing toxic concoctions. It may also be the use of bleach on top of acid cleaners, or vice versa. People may wipe down a counter with vinegar, then follow with a bleach wipe if the counter is not clean enough.
“If you need to use two products to clean, be sure to rinse the area with water and let dry before attempting to layer on an additional cleaning product,” Hanoian-Fontana said. “This will help to avoid toxic combinations.”
Likewise, commercial “bleach wipes” may actually contain ammonia instead of bleach, and it can be dangerous to add bleach to these containers.
Some also worry about the environmental impacts of bleach. Industrial bleach manufacturing and usage generates dioxin, a toxic byproduct that has been linked to cancer and birth defects. Dioxin and other bleach byproducts are also toxic to birds and fish. Again, household bleach is not strong enough to cause much concern. Bleaching paper and other industrial processes are the main concern.
Alternatives are available for those want to avoid the health and environmental threats associated with bleach, but they may also pose dangers while proving less effective as disinfectants.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns against relying on ammonia, baking soda, vinegar or Borax. None of these products are registered as disinfectants with the Environmental Protection Agency, and they are all ineffective against Staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria that is the most common cause of staph infections. Borax, baking soda and standard detergents also won’t kill salmonella or E.coli. On the other hand, vinegar and undiluted ammonia kill both salmonella and E.coli.
- Hydrogen peroxide can cause severe burns at high enough concentrations to be effective disinfectants.
- Quaternary ammonium compounds, or quats, are a less widely available option. Though quats are generally safe, some products may contain toxic ingredients. The Labour Environmental Alliance Society in Canada recommends Enviro Care disinfectants, which contain quats, are very effective and have no known toxic ingredients.